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How the Withdrawal of US Troops in Syria Impacted Regional Politics and Security

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As northern Syria attempts to adjust to life without US troops, which destabilized what was already considered a tenuous situation, the regional politics and security of the nation have been thrown into disarray with no sight of improvement. In addition to the civil war and refugee crisis, the nation has been an arena where world powers have been vying for a foothold in the Middle East for nearly a decade. With the abrupt shift in territorial control it has become apparent that due to its geographical location and political makeup, Syria is the subject of a custody battle with repercussions that extend far beyond its borders. 

In March of 2011, when peaceful protesters were brutalized for anti-government graffiti, Syria joined the Arab Spring movement sweeping across the Middle East. But unlike neighboring countries, whose own uprisings were brief and relatively non-violent, Syria was pulled into an outright civil war. Later that year, when more citizens were killed and tortured, the sentiment reached a critical mass. What complicated things in Syria, however, was not a more violent response by the national government – the Lybian leader Muammar al-Gaddafi didn’t hesitate in unleashing his military onto his citizens calling for social reform – but the unique nationalities and religions that make up the Syrian population. 

The kindling that sparked the civil war can be attributed to the large ethnic group known as the Kurds who, since the end of WWI when the winning side drew arbitrary borders that divided villages and townships, have remained nationless and spread across multiple countries including Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurds in Syria, who differ from those in Iraq and Turkey, became easy scapegoats when they formed a rebellion with the intent to not only fight back against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but to fight for land control they felt was long overdue. However, when the initial Kurdish rebellion fractured into nearly a dozen smaller groups, they became pawns that allowed world powers to engage in a proxy war. Though it’s impossible to predict who might fill the vacuum that was recently created by the withdrawal of American troops, there are some key players who are strategically postured to make a move

The war in Syria is comprised of three main groups which is why the situation is often a complex one to follow. After the first shots were fired, the Syrian government was immediately backed by long-time ally Iran, and eventually received military support from Russia. Saudi Arabia, who saw the rebellion as a means to counter Iran without starting a war on its own soil, sent funding and military arms to the Kurds. The US watched this localized fighting from afar until the decision was made to support Kurdish forces in an effort to defeat the newly emerged ISIS, or Islamic State, who threatened western civilization with extremist tactics such as chemical weapons. The third player to throw their hat into the proverbial ring was Turkey, who took the opportunity to wage war against their own Kurdish population whom they consider terrorists but who in reality have little connection to their Syrian counterparts. 

The status quo has been broken and already a trend of uncertainty and chaos has emerged. With the US no longer aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey was granted tacit permission to invade northern Syria. The Kurdish rebels are being forced to either flee the region or join Russian-backed Syrian forces to the south, leaving behind abandoned ISIS prisoners and further displacing overrun refugee camps. Although Russia may outwardly appear to be working against the Turkish government, recent delegations and official engagements suggest that an agreement might be in the works. It would make sense as Russia has a lot to gain by striking a peace deal between Turkey and Syria. Not only would it provide more access to the region through developed seaports but getting Turkey to move away from NATO would give Russia more status as a world power.

 In addition to wondering what comes next for Syria, the world is also left with the question of why the US so abruptly decided to pull its troops out of areas it has been defending for years.  Although this move seems sudden, there is a historical precedent that suggests it may have been long overdue. In 1947, barely two years after WWII ended, Britain found itself overextended and unable to effectively manage its global empire. Realizing it was financially impossible to maintain oversight of the region, the British government abdicated control to the US. Now, years later, America finds itself in a similar position, but without a viable candidate to hand things over to. While there is much to be said and plenty to criticize about how and why the decision was made, it’s hard to imagine there’s ever a ‘good time’ or ‘right way’ to exit the Middle Eastern crisis. 

Although there’s no way to predict what Syria’s future looks like, there are a few variables the move has cemented into place. Firstly, the US has all but permanently severed ties with the Kurds and rebellion forces, making it unlikely the abandoned populace will place its trust another super-power anytime soon. Secondly, the Russian government’s influence will no doubt throw a spanner in the works, and stability in the region seems to be far fetched. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ISIS and other extremist groups have threatened to resurge and create further instability in already unstable country. With the Turkish Kurds being forced to move south, and the Syrian Kurds involuntarily enlisted into Assad’s regime, they are prime recruits for any movement that can convince the world it is less extreme than the current governments of Syria, Russia, or Turkey. 

Sadly, the one fact that has not changed is that more innocent lives will continue to be lost, and the world will continue to face the refugee crises. European countries who amended immigration policy in response to the crisis have maxed out their ability to assimilate them into society. Without proper management and oversight, this could be the set-up for history to repeat itself. A large population of disenfranchised individuals who feel their land and their rights have been taken away from them is the definition of what started the Arab Spring. Whether with words or with weapons, the fighting will continue until a nation (or collective of nations) with direct experience and understanding of the problem, as well as a personal stake in the availability of oil, steps in with the intention of eventually stepping out. 

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The Need to Reorient New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific

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Beijing’s overt expansionism in South Asia and the South China Sea (SCS) continues to threaten India’s maritime security. The rise of China as an Asian military and global economic power has also disrupted the inherent security and multilateralism of the Indo-Pacific region (IPR).

In response, New Delhi along with others has adopted the concept of the Indo-Pacific. However, over the last decade New Delhi’s orientation in the IPR has been particularly “Pacific-oriented”, resulting in a less than comprehensive approach to India’s maritime security priorities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India’s Strategic Goals in the Indo-Pacific

China’s so-called “peaceful rise” has been betrayed by Beijing’s growing territorial designs in South Asia and the SCS; the ongoing buildup along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and China’s militarised outposts in the SCS are evidence to this. These designs have also been operationalised through economic measures under its predatory Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the “silk road” is a challenge to India’s maritime security.

India’s strategic competition with China has provoked the expansion of national material capacity and foreign policy measures. These are aimed at developing and preserving collective regional security and multilateralism, in India’s primary and secondary interest areas.

However, over the years, New Delhi’s adoption of the IPR concept has witnessed a disproportionate emphasis on the eastern sub-region of the Indian Ocean (EIO) in terms of its maritime security priorities, resulting in a Pacific-oriented approach. A number of factors have brought about such an orientation.

A Pacific-Oriented Approach and the EIO

First, India’s strategic advantage along the “Indo-Pacific straits”. The “Malacca dilemma” gives New Delhi an edge over China’s energy supply-lines, and regional trade from the IOR to the western Pacific Ocean. This advantage is furthered by the development of material capacities, most significant of which has been the establishment of India’s first integrated command on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Command’s (ANC) surveillance and kinetic capabilities not only improves India’s own security status, but also signals its contribution in preserving collective regional security in the EIO, for example, through the India-Australia-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), or Quad.

Second, the origins of the IPR concept in the now famous “confluence of the seas” speech delivered by PM Shinzo Abe to the Indian Parliament in 2007. The  mention of,  “[a] “broader Asia” that broke away geographical boundaries…”, or Southeast Asia, highlighted the political locus of the IPR’s confrontation with an “assertive China”. The continued militarisation of the SCS, growing tensions in East Asia, and the US-China strategic competition, helps perpetuate Southeast Asia’s prominence in the IPR discourse.

Third, New Delhi’s continuation of the “Look East” policy as the “Act East” policy (AEP)  in 2014. Building on historical ties with Southeast Asia, New Delhi placed ASEAN at the core of the AEP. ASEAN is also considered “central to India’s footprint in East Asia”. These foreign policy measures, focused on developing resilient trans-regional connectivity and supply-chains, flow past the EIO, from the Andaman Sea, through the Malacca strait, to Southeast Asia and beyond.

Fourth, and finally, India’s growing importance in the US-China strategic competition. China’s economic influence in Southeast Asia, along with its large military capabilities, poses a threat to the US’s position as an influential extra-regional power. The recently ratified Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has been the latest in a list of disruptions to the US’s predominance in the IPR. 

As India’s maritime goals continue to converge with that of the US and its regional allies – Japan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea – New Delhi’s interests will stretch further into the Pacific theatre, to the SCS, East China Sea and Western Pacific. In fact, some suggest that the idea of a military command on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was in fact, first discussed by President Bill Clinton and PM P.V Narashima Rao as a deterrent against China in 1995.

Furthermore, the US defines the IPR as, “…the region which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States…”, thereby excluding the WIOR from its strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific theatre. This explains why the sub-region is understated in India’s IPR discourse. 

While Indian Navy (IN) manoeuvres in the region have been generally limited to the IOR, the recent Galwan Valley clash saw an IN warship deployed to the SCS; coincidentally, during an ongoing US naval exercise in the area. There is also a growing call for the expansion of IN presence to the Western Pacific, beyond its mission-based deployments.

Reorienting New Delhi Towards the WIOR

This Pacific-orientation has resulted in the omission of the western sub-region of the Indian Ocean Region (WIOR) from India’s strategic approach to the IPR. The use of the term “Indo-Pacific straits” for those between the EIO and Southeast Asia, already exclude the sub-region from India’s strategic approach to the IPR.

A comprehensive approach to the IOR should obviously entail an emphasis on India’s maritime security priorities in both sub-regions of the IOR.

This in turn will allow New Delhi to realise its interests in the larger Indo-Pacific theatre.

The WIOR is physically a much larger arena, with different regional and extra-regional actors. However, it is a significant arena within the IPR for much of the same reasons as the EIO

The main obstacle of the WIOR, when placed within the IPR concept is that India’s approach to the region diverges greatly from its current IPR partners. Differing priorities, conflicting interests and historical contexts, for example with regards to Pakistan and Iran, have generally muted the region.

The decision to hold the second phase of the 2020 Malabar Exercise in the Arabian Sea is a welcome move in reinforcing the sub-region in India’s IPR approach. New Delhi’s reception of the recently signed Maldives-US defence agreement is also a sign of India’s slow reorientation to the WIOR.

India’s position in the WIOR gives it a number of strategic advantages. The Indian peninsula along with the Lakshadweep Islands and Laccadive Sea, offers New Delhi a unique edge in protecting and overseeing much of the world’s goods trade from the Atlantic Ocean, and energy supplies from West Asia to the Pacific Oceans. The development of material capacities in this arena will act as a springboard for the further enhancement of collective regional security.

The growing participation of extra-regional actors in the WIOR, such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the EU, signals to New Delhi the need to include the region in its IPR approach. Pursuing mutually beneficial security and economic arrangements with actors besides its existing IPR partners will also help circumventing current contrasts in maritime priorities and geostrategic interests.

More importantly, China’s growing military and economic presence in the Arabian Sea, through the “string of pearls” and the “maritime silk road”, remains a threat to India’s traditional ties to, and its status as a net-security provider in the WIOR. The Chabahar Port in the Balochistan-Sistan province in Iran is one such economic interest that has seen much controversy; the recent exclusion of India from the Zahedan railway project, and the subsequent agreement of a $400 billion strategic partnership between China and Iran.

The WIOR is also of concern to India due to extant interests, such as maintaining a strategic advantage vis-a-vis Pakistan, enhancing trade with Afghanistan and East Africa, piracy/terrrorism in the Arabian Sea, and energy supplies from the Middle East.

Conclusion

To secure India’s maritime priorities in the IOR, but also consolidate its vision for the IPR, New Delhi needs to reorient itself, determine its strategic advantages in the WIOR, and develop national capacity and foreign policy measures equivalent to those in the EIO.

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On the Universality of the “Logic of Strategy” and Beyond

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Just like several other scholars, military strategist Edward Luttwak argues that “the universal logic of strategy applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age”.[i] This implies that there is indeed one logic inherent to strategic thought, which, according to Luttwak, “cannot be circumvented […] and must be obeyed”.[ii]Mahnken further underpins the idea of the universality of the logic of strategy with the argument that war is a human activity and human nature has not changed throughout time.[iii]When considering Colin Gray stating that “there is an essential unity to all strategic experience in all periods of history because nothing vital to the nature and function of war and strategy changes”, it seems rather natural to accept a certain inevitability of strategic conclusions.[iv]

It is therefore necessary to pose the question which implications the existence of a universal logic of strategy might entail. If such a universally valid logic is assumed to exist, those who understand – or rather master – it best and manage to uncover its underlying cognitive mechanisms will be the most successful actors within the international system as they will be more able to foresee and therefore counter the strategies of possible opponents.

Additionally, to investigate the notion of a logic of strategy is particularly relevant considering the prospect of future wars. If there is a logic of strategy, which is further universally valid, then neither the scenario of a militarized outer space, nor the invention of highly lethal, insuperable biological weapons or the increasing development of and reliance on artificial intelligence will have any substantial, altering effect on it. This thought is congruent with Colin Gray, who claims that it would be a major fallacy to fall prey to the assumption that the invention of ever more modern weapon systems might change the presumed continuity inherent to strategy.[v] In this respect, it must also be emphasized that a certain trust in a universally valid logic of strategy must be handled carefully and must not confine strategic thinking. Hence, the notion of a logic of strategy hints towards the very practice of strategy.[vi]

The term “strategy” itself evolved over time and certainly captured a different meaning before World War One than it does today. This caesura was introduced by Freedman, who argues that this experience led to a widening of the concept “strategy” and to several attempts of redefinition, thus diverging from earlier notions of the concept as provided by von Clausewitz and others.[vii] However, Whetham points out that the notion of strategy and its inherent logic already permeated pre-modern eras, even if it was not yet considered or referred to as such by the respective protagonists.[viii]Approaching the term from a contemporary perspective, Gray very prominently defines strategy as “the bridge that relates military power to political purpose”.[ix]Angstrom and Widen engage with the term similarly when they write that strategy must be viewed as a rationalist process that reconciles “the political aims of war and the military aims in war”.[x] The notion of strategy can therefore be boiled down to the combination of means, ways and aims.

The term “logic” shall in this essay be understood as a rational process of reasoning that is based on various premises and finally leads to the acceptance of a valid conclusion.[xi]Considering that the sub-discipline of strategic studies was traditionally occupied with the question whether and to what extent strategic action is subject to historical, economic, social and technological regularities and patterns – thus whether certain premises indeed necessarily lead to specific strategic conclusions – the assumption of a specific “logic of strategy” does not seem far-fetched. Therefore, this essay argues that indeed a universally valid logic inherent to strategy can be identified, having overcome the constraints of time and space. However, this logic is not the only one. Strategy further operates along the lines of a time- and space-bound, actor-specific logic, which is why strategy must be perceived through a multidimensional lens – and which finally makes strategy so difficult.

On the logic of strategy

When approaching the notion of a logic of strategy, it is necessary to emphasize two preconditions. Firstly, the utility of the use of military force as an important tool of statecraft must be acknowledged.[xii] Secondly, one has to consider the general overarching perception of international politics that widely underlies the field of strategic studies, namely the notion of an anarchic self-help system with independent states at its center, which are all armed to a certain extent and therefore find themselves in security dilemmas.[xiii] Within this framework we will now consider what might constitute the logic of strategy.

When elaborating on the question whether there exist “guidelines” that inform strategic thinking, Gaddis concludes that the fact that strategists do not always have to start from square one increases the likeliness of a certain logic of strategy.[xiv] According to Angstrom and Wilden, the logic of strategy unfolds as its design necessarily bases on three core pillars.[xv]Firstly, military and political ends are perceived as two distinct aspects that need to be put into accordance, the application of military means serving the political ends. Moreover, the actor being concerned with strategy does not have unlimited resources at his/her disposal. Therefore, the aspect of the scarcity of resources is to be viewed as a cornerstone or fixed determinant of the underlying logic of strategy. This is a crucial factor because, as Gray points out, examples like Imperial France, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union all demonstrate that the pursuit of political ends beyond one’s means is bound to fail.[xvi]Thirdly, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that the logic of strategy builds on the confrontation of opposing wills, which accounts for strategy’s interactive and consequently dynamic nature.[xvii] This component might be captured best by Beaufre, who approaches strategy as “the art of the dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute”.[xviii] It is crucial to highlight that the “opposing will” belongs to an intelligent, capable opponent. These three elements that define the logic of strategy are further interlinked, leading to repercussions among them.

As strategy describes the use of military means for the achievement of political ends, several authors have thus attempted to categorize the possible ways to use force. For instance, Robert Art distinguishes four functions of the use of force: defense, deterrence, compellence and swaggering.[xix] Why is this categorization important when reflecting on the logic of strategy? This is because the possible ways to use force (independently of which form the specific “force” takes) are not time-bound. When for example thinking of deterrence, one might be tempted to assume that this specific way to use force is inextricably linked to the deterrence function of nuclear arms in combination with the principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD). However, as Lonsdale vividly illustrates, Alexander the Great already mastered the interplay of military power and psychological effects and made use of coercion and deterrence in order to expand and sustain the newly shaping borders of his empire.[xx] This demonstrates that the logic of strategy operates on the basis of a certain toolkit of ways to use force, which have persisted over time.

Another aspect which could be interpreted as part of a universal logic of strategy might be its inherent paradoxicality. This feature is above all emphasized by Edward Luttwak, who postulates that the whole strategic sphere is permeated with a paradoxical logic deviating from day-to-day life’s ordinary “linear” logic.[xxi] He underpins this notion by referring to the proverb “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, the idea of nuclear deterrence (thus the interpretation of one’s readiness to attack retaliatory as genuinely peaceful intent) or by providing specific examples.[xxii] In this sense he draws attention to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and claims that the Japanese were able to create a momentum of surprise only by neglecting crucial preparations.[xxiii] This means that within the realm of strategy, Luttwak’s paradoxical logic finds thorough application as the straightforward “linear” logic is viewed rather predictable and is therefore more likely to be punished.

In sum, the aspects outlined above could be perceived as being universally valid, throughout time and space. However, as will be argued, there is more to the logic of strategy that must be considered.

Going Beyond Strategy’s Universal Logic

In the following, the attempt should be undertaken to challenge the notion that there is indeed only a logic of strategy. One could firstly argue that strategy, bridging between military means and political objectives, is not only grounded in the specific universal logic as outlined before but that strategy is also always a choice among several available options. Then the question follows, if all options available would theoretically all be equally feasible, require the same resources and are similar in terms of effectiveness, which strategy would be adopted? One could argue that this depends on the involved actors, which, even if acting under the premise of rationality, are rooted in their specific historical, social and political contexts.

Strategy is therefore clearly not designed within a vacuum. The contents of strategy do not only derive from what was described above as composing the universally valid logic of strategy. If we return to the definition of “logic”, the term was understood as a process of thought, which leads from several given premises to a valid conclusion under the condition of rationality. Therefore, also the given time- and space-bound circumstances under which a certain strategy is formulated could be considered as forming their own logic. Angstrom and Widen summarize these circumstances as strategic context, which unfolds along the lines of six dimensions of politics (without claiming to be exhaustive): geography, history, ideology, economy, technology and the political system.[xxiv] Instead of treating them as mere contextual factors, it is important to consider the respective as constituting their own logic, along which strategy is aligned. However, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that these actor-specific factors only bear limited explanatory power and that it is difficult to assess to what extent these factors influence the design of strategies.[xxv] This, nevertheless, does not invalidate the notion that these actor-, time- and space-specific circumstances should be considered as another logic by itself. Acknowledging the existence of more than one logic of strategy penetrating the realm of strategy would further emphasize the importance of the specific embeddedness of strategy – without undermining the significance of the above identified universally valid logic of strategy. One would consequently accept that when it comes to strategy, one encounters several logics in action.

Conclusion

When returning to the initial question, which implications the existence of a logic of strategy would have, specifically regarding the prospect of success, it is worthwhile to consult Richard Betts, who asks “Is Strategy an Illusion?”.[xxvi] He argues that effective strategy is often impossible due to the unpredictability and complexity of the gap between the use of force and the aspired political ends.[xxvii] However, it is indeed because of this overwhelming complexity in which strategy operates that its underlying logics should be reflected upon. Gaddis refers to the universally valid features of the logic of strategy as a “checklist”, which shall be considered to contribute to the design of a successful, effective strategy.[xxviii] As was demonstrated above, it is nevertheless also crucial to consider the additional specific time-and space-bound logic of strategy. To understand the strategy of potential opponents, it makes sense to deconstruct its logical foundation, to consider the universally valid logic of strategy but also the respective underlying actor-specific logic. Strategy thus operates along a multidimensional logic, both universally valid and time- and space-bound. This is what makes strategy difficult but acknowledging this conceptual aspect might notwithstanding contribute to its further mastery.


[i]Luttwak, Edward N., The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2012), vii.

[ii]Ibid., viii.

[iii]Mahnken, Thomas G., The Evolution of Strategy… But What About Policy? Journal of Strategic Studies 34 no. 4 (2016), 52.

[iv]Gray, Colin S.,Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1.

[v]Gray Colin S., Why Strategy Is Difficult. JFQ (1999), 8.

[vi] Cf. Lonsdale, David J. and Colin S. Gray (eds.), The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011).

[vii]Freedman, Lawrence. The Meaning of Strategy: Part I: The Origin Story. Texas National Security Review 1 no. 1 (2007), 90-105.

[viii]Whetham, David, The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Edited by John Andreas Olsen and Colin S. Gray. War in History 21 no. 2 (2014), 252.

[ix] Gray, Modern Strategy,17.

[x]Armstrong, Jan and J. J. Widen,Contemporary Military Theory. The Dynamics of War (New York: Routledge, 2015), 33. Original emphasis.

[xi]Hintikka, Jaakko, Logic. Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessible via: https://www.britannica.com/topic/logic [accessed: October 25th 2020].

[xii]Art, Robert J., To What Ends Military Power? International Security 4 no. 4 (1980), 35.

[xiii]Gilpin, Robert G., No one Loves a Political Realist. Security Studies 5 no. 3(1996), 26.

[xiv]Gaddis, John Lewis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy. The National Interest 8 no. 10 (1987), 29.

[xv] Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 46.

[xvi]Gray, Why Strategy Is Difficult, 10.

[xvii] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory.

[xviii]Beaufre, André, An Introduction to Strategy (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 22.

[xix] Cf. Art, To What Ends Military Power?

[xx]Lonsdale, David J., The Campaigns of Alexander the Great. In: John A. Olsen; Colin S. Gray (eds.). The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011)33.

[xxi]Luttwak, Edward N., Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 6.

[xxiv] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 36-43.

[xxv] Ibid., 42-43.

[xxvi] Cf. Betts, Richard K., Is Strategy an Illusion? International Security 25 no. 2 (2000), 5-50.

[xxvii]Ibid., 5.

[xxviii] Gaddis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy, 38.

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Biden, Modi and the Malabar Exercise 2020

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So lastly, the reluctant President Donald Trump, keeping the value of the verdict, allows the GSA to begin the transition under the Presidential Transition Act 1963, on November 23, 2020 making the post-election resources and services available to assist in the event of presidential transition. This facilitates the formal transfer of power and helps the new President adjust his vision and the assessment of the world. Joe Biden has his own view of the burning issues around of which the expanding China, Taiwan, South China Sea, Iran, South Asia and Indo-Pacific constitute important fragments. Now since India is engaged in almost all these issues directly or indirectly and happens to be a long term strategic ally of US the talk between Biden and Modi carries several messages. In the meantime, the conduct of Malabar exercise, that formally involves all the QUAD members (India, Japan, the US and Australia) institutionalizes the strategic relationship in the region and promises more stability and peace.

Prime Minister Narender Modi, just like the heads of Canada, UK, and Australia congratulated the new elect on November 17, 2020. The President-elect Joe Biden, in turn, called him back for thanks and reaffirmation of many things suspected to be under shadow by many. The president-elect noted that he looks forward to working closely with the prime minister on shared global challenges, including containing COVID-19 and defending against future health crises, tackling the threat of climate change, launching the global economic recovery, strengthening democracy at home and abroad, and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region (The Week). Mr. Biden expressed his desire to carry forward the strong ties between the two states and strengthen and expand the US-India strategic partnership alongside the first Vice President of South Asian descent Kamla Harris. His election policy papers also held that no important global challenge could be solved without the Indo-US partnership.

Besides crafting a greater Indian role in world politics, Biden’s reference to challenges of climate change, the Covid 19 pandemic and global economic recovery, the stress on democracy and peaceful and prosperous Indo-pacific sketch some significant flashes of the coming times. ‘Democracy Assistance’ has been an important objective of US foreign policy since beginning but India has a mercurial stance over the goal as it has succumbed to the exigencies of national interest and security thus playing safe with the undemocratic neighbours. Therefore the US reference brings the dictatorial and nondemocratic regimes into discussion that it aims to size.

Indo-Pacific and the Malabar I&II

The Indo-Pacific and the QUAD have gained prominence in recent past on account of heat generated in the South China Sea and China’s OBOR project affecting the trade interests of ASEAN members, India and the US in the Indian Ocean region. In the October 7, 2020 QUAD members meet at Tokyo the issues of collaboration among the democratic states and challenge to world peace, primarily from China, was discussed seriously. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the democracies to work together to protect people and partners from the Communist Party of China’s exploitation, corruption and coercion. He referred to the Chinese provocations in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, and the Taiwan Straits (Joshi October 7, 2020). The Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also called for likeminded countries to coordinate responses. Mr. Jaishanker held that we remain committed to upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international sea, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes (The Quint, October 7, 2020). However, a strong commitment lacked on the part of India which was met later during the Malabar exercise. India has a clear Indo-Pacific policy as articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018, which aims at protecting Indian interests in the Indian ocean region against China’s OBOR and SOP (String of Pearl). Peace and security in the region are high up on India’s list of priorities. As first and foremost, India’s economic interests in the region requires peace and convivial environment. At the same time, India has acknowledged rising China’s threats to its vital national interests in the region. Therefore, India’s strategy must be seen against the background of the interplay between India’s economic interests and national security (Purayil 2019).

The latest 24th edition of Malabar exercises have, however, put all the skeptics aside as India invited Australia also this time for the naval exercises and all the four QUAD members (India, US and Japan) have participated with great zeal. The more interesting thing is that the exercises take place at a time when the world is down with pandemic and the conflicting situations are flaring up in the Middle-East, Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia and Far East. India is locked up in a border issue at Ladakh with China for over six months and South China Sea simmers under the fire of war threat.  India’s tough times with its smaller neighbours also make the possibility of the institutionalization of QUAD and Indo-Pacific of immense importance.

The first phase of the exercise was held in the Bay of Bengal from November 3-6, and the second phase was conducted in the Arabian Sea from November 17-20. The navies of India, the US, Australia and Japan concluded the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise in the Arabian Sea that involved two aircraft carriers and a number of frontline warships, submarines and maritime aircraft (Mint. November 20, 2020). The major highlight of the exercise was participation of Indian Navy’s Vikramaditya carrier battle group and the Nimitz strike group of the US Navy.

The more significant outcome of the exercise appears to be the proposal of a new fleet by US. On November 17, 2020 speaking at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium, the outgoing U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite suggested the creation of a new fleet within the Indo-Pacific theater, which will take some load off the U.S. Seventh Fleet stationed near Japan. The fleet is to be placed in the crossroads between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, and going to have an Indo-PACOM footprint (Military Men. November 19, 2020). The region already has a Command known as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command found on 30 May 2018 and converted from United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) first found in 1947.

Initially, the Chinese response was balanced, stating that it has noticed the development and believes that military cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability. But after the proposed fleet and the President-elect Joe Biden’s presumptive nominee for the secretary of defense position, Michele Flournoy, who is also seen as a China hawk in favor of a robust stance against the People’s Liberation Army, Navy, the idea of the First Fleet may very well carry forward to the next administration (Rej).

Since China had reacted sharply at the inclusion of Japan at the Malabar exercises in 2018 the inclusion of Australia this times irks it more as the idea of QUAD gets more institutionalized and the Indo-Pacific mapping further crystallized. The Biden’s quest for a stronger strategic partnership with India and support for Indian claim to permanent membership of the United Nations and the unflinching support for India against its security issues have raised eyebrows in Beijing. At one stage, the US presence in Diageo Garcia irked India but in the changed scenario the increased US presence in Indian Ocean doesn’t alarm it much, even though it curtails the Indian prominence. In view of OBOR project and the Chinese aggressiveness in the region, India has reconciled to the situation and even the US-Maldives agreement of September goes well with it. However, in the long run it is faced with a double challenge of plugging the Chinese dominance and saving its prominence and at the same time reconcile with a friendly ally in the US. Meanwhile, China, being the largest trade partner of Australia may hurt it economically and rake up heat at the Nine- dash line, Ladakh and Taiwan.

References

  • Joshi, Manoj. October 7, 2020. “The Quad and the Indo-Pacific.” https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/quad-indo-pacific/
  • Military Men. November 19, 2020. https://militarymen.in/us-navy-secretary-proposes-new-indo-pacific-fleet-the-diplomat/
  • Mint. November 20, 2020. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/phase-2-of-malabar-2020-exercise-concludes-in-arabian-sea-11605889757803.html
  • Purayil, Muhsin Puthan 2019. Geopolitics. “The 2019 Shangri La Dialogue and Reflections on India’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.” https://thegeopolitics.com/the-2019-shangri-la-dialogue-and-reflections-on-indias-indo-pacific-strategy/.
  • Rej, Abhijnan. The Diplomat. November 18, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/us-navy-secretary-proposes-new-indo-pacific-fleet/
  • The Quint. October 7, 2020). https://www.thequint.com/news/india/we-will-work-together-s-jaishankar-meets-mike-pompeo-in-tokyo
  • The Week. https://www.theweek.in/wire-updates/international/2020/11/18/fgn2-us-biden-modi.html

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